Ever since I was five, I have been enamored by large, predatory cats. I would read National Geographic, Zoo-books, and even page through wildlife encyclopedias to learn about their behavior and sketch copies of the images I found within. Watching shows like Jonathan Scott’s “Big Cat Diary”, I would dream of becoming a big cat researcher, if such a thing exists, and no cat held my eyes to the screen like the leopard; reclusive and shy, (much like my younger self who often spent recess in the library drawing leopards and pumas) and ferocious when provoked, (unlike myself ever).
So after the first week in Naivasha and half a week in the Maasai Mara had yielded nothing but tracks, I was becoming slightly pessimistic. People spend years in the Mara and never see a leopard, so what hope did we have on this one week jaunt that was primarily focused on raptors.
One morning, we drove down the bumpy road that follows the Olare River that adds its volume to the Mara river. Though our instructors specialize in the study of raptors and vultures, the unsaid objective of the morning was to find a leopard.
During our first few days on the national reserve, we had seen almost every large mammal that the Mara was home to, excluding the rare, endangered rhino. Lions, hyenas, cheetahs, buffalo and elephants all struck us with the awe that comes from seeing characters once confined to the pages of books, and the screens of TV and movies, standing in full size. And yet, once observed, they all became somehow ordinary in comparison to the leopard; intangible and still prowling the forests of our imaginations.
That said, by the time our last safari ended, we had become superstitious and refused to speak the name of that which had eluded us for the entire trip. Each time we spoke of our intentions to find a leopard, we would stumble across yet another cheetah or lion and, as ridiculous as it might seem, I would return to base camp feeling disappointed.
The word “leopard” was thus replaced by the word “sheep” and spawned such ridiculous and hopeful phrases as, “That looks like a sheep tree if I ever saw one!” or the ever optimistic, “this here’s sheep country. I can feel it.” So when we saw another jeep parked in front of a dense thicket of Balanites and Acacia, we all assumed that the object being gawked at was just another buffalo or lion. When we pulled up alongside the vehicle and our drivers exchanged some Kiswahili, however, my instructor Shiv, with whom I had running bet on concerning who would be the one to spot the first leopard, smiled and said, “Well Roger, it looks like we both lose”. My eyes widened and turned to the brush in front of the other van.
The leopard was a small one; the son of an old female named Olive who was well known to those who made a living in the area. It was lounging in the shade of a small acacia tree, his rosettes of spots and white-tan coloration blending in almost perfectly in the tall red oat grass.
Dropped jaws and gasps quickly transitioned into eyes glued to cameras that clicked and beeped until we appeared and sounded like some large insect, clicking like a cricket and flashing like a lightning bug in midday.
St Lawrence students (including me on far left) drop our jaws on seeing the leopard hunt a mongoose. Photo by Munir Virani
Close by, a small group of mongoose foraged in the dirt and carelessly edged closer to the dozing cat hidden in the bushes. Then, either from the sound or smell of the carefree viverrids, the gorgeous cat arose into the morning light and stalked with rolling shoulders into the shady cover of a young Croton. Once the group of mongooses skittered close enough, the leopard, as we now felt comfortable enough to call it, laid back its ears, crouched as only a predator can, and launched itself toward its unsuspecting prey. At first, the chaos was slightly comical; the mongooses squealed and split in every different direction while the young cat was left confused at which one to go for. But after narrowly missing the first lucky mongoose, the leopard dove into the obscurity of brush and leaves after a less fortunate individual that was finally slain on the other side of the thicket. We were speechless at our luck. Not only had we seen a leopard on our first trip to Kenya, we had just witnessed a successful hunt, (albeit on a slightly less than meaty prey item), but successful nonetheless. After this drama unfolded, everyone seemed to have a content look about them and we gladly settled in to our seats for another ride back to camp for lunch while the leopard enjoyed his own, unique meal.